EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of what I hope will be many opinion pieces by Phil Stone, dodgerscribe.com’s resident statistical guru, whose beautiful mug you see here. Phil comes at it from a Dodgers fan’s point of view. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.
The end of a baseball season often brings about a certain level of depression. When something is a part of your life every day for six months, then goes away in kind of an abrupt manner, it can be rough for a little while. Throw in the disappointment of coming so close to the ultimate goal, 25 years in the making, and the emotions don’t generally subside any sooner. Losing to St. Louis, however, was not heartbreaking for me personally. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a Dodger fan as you’ll find. I just couldn’t really identify any type of desperate heartache or pain out of the loss. What I was feeling, however, was a bit of frustration, probably for a week during the NLCS and a day after, and here’s why:
The Dodgers lost Games 1 and 2 by two runs combined at Busch. They were in these games and could have won one or both with a healthy Hanley Ramirez. Now I realize that bad things happen in baseball and that teams have to have players step up when they do to overcome these obstacles. But like most Dodgers, fans I found it hard to excuse Joe Kelly for injuring the Dodgers’ most dynamic, talented and irreplaceable player. While I don’t believe he intentionally tried to hit him on a 1-2 pitch, his intention clearly was to drive him off the plate, a perfectly legitimate strategy so long as you know how to pitch inside and you don’t injure someone doing it. These are the playoffs, after all. I guess what I’m saying is Kelly “… wasn’t guilty, but he was responsible.” In my view, most of my frustration was due to my belief that Kelly literally changed the balance of competition by acting irresponsibly. All I could think about for a week as a fan, a non-violent one who generally doesn’t advocate the kind of thing we saw from a guy like Carlos Quentin this season, was WWDDD or What Would Don Drysdale Do? I think we all know the answer to that.
How did I deal with this frustration?
Well, first of all, if you would have told me on June 1 that the Dodgers were going to come within two wins of a World Series appearance after a historic run that would see them win a franchise-record 18 in a row on the road, play 40 games above .500 for a 66-game stretch and do it without the services of Matt Kemp for most of it, I would never have believed you. So some perspective is always a help in dealing with this kind of thing.
Looking to the future is a tool as old as the Dodgers themselves for consoling the frustrated (See: “Wait ‘Til Next Year”). I mean, the Dodgers are in good shape, right? A talented if not slightly older lineup with arguably the best one-two punch on the mound in all of baseball; a consistently good, young, third starter; a good young closer; and what should be a good-enough core of players to compete for a number of years. Right? Dodgers have all this money, a renewed involvement in international scouting, stadium improvements for both fans and players (don’t underestimate the impact outdated baseball facilities can have on a team’s ability to entice free agents) and some promising minor leaguers in their system. I’m already grabbing my shades, the future’s so bright! So frustrated fans can hang their hats on that right? Well, maybe, because usually, at least over 162 games, talent carries the day (or the months in this case).
This is what troubles me, though, and it shouldn’t be ignored by even the most blue-blooded, rose colored glasses-wearing Dodgers fan. If yesterday’s Don Mattingly-Ned Colletti press conference tells us anything, it tells us that the Dodgers still either haven’t addressed the institutional problems that have plagued them now since Peter O’Malley left in 1998 or are just starting to do so. “The Dodger Way” lost its way a while ago. You know, the mixture of talent, discipline, a situational understanding of the game, loyalty to teammates and the organization, these things have been elusive for a while now and may still be going unaddressed. As a fan and a stat geek, it’s hard to know. This was a fairly tight-knit team, don’t get me wrong, but there were frayed seams and a manager that may or may not have had the backing of upper management to deal with those stitches.
Now forgive me, Dodgers fans, but I’m about to wax poetic about the other sport I hold dear … hockey.
You see, this whole situation reminds me of when Colletti’s friend Dean Lombardi became GM of the L.A. Kings. He talked to fans and season-ticket holders regularly about building a team with talented players who have “the Kings logo tattooed to their butts.” He hired a coach who installed a system of play that would be played at both of their minor league affiliates with a core of drafted players who fit that system, with an emphasis on smarts and size. He wanted guys willing to play “Kings Hockey” for each other. He wanted a commitment from the players, and in turn, he’d make a commitment to them once they had established their value to their teammates and the organization.
Now I’m not naive enough to think hockey players and ballplayers are always motivated by the same things, or that this is a perfectly analogous situation, what with cultural differences and salary-cap restraints in the NHL. But Lombardi has built a perennial winner in this town, and the Dodgers need to build a new winning franchise much the same way. That’s right, four miles down the 110 Freeway, there’s a team playing at Staples Center that can be a blueprint for how the Dodgers need to do this, and it’s not the former championship basketball team one of its owners used to play for. They have a lot of the talent they need, but I’m not sure they have the TOTAL commitment of the whole organization — not if the comments from yesterday’s press conference are any indication.
If Mattingly leaves the team, it is incumbent upon the Dodgers to hire someone whose philosophies are echoed all the way down the chain. A man who can teach and use his veterans and coaches to reinforce the philosophies to young men from a variety of backgrounds. Colletti has to use the judgment necessary to either show patience or have the guts to make the tough decisions that need to be made based on the player’s perceived commitment to the organizational philosophy. But most of all, he needs an upper management team that trusts him because they’re on the exact same page, from Magic Johnson all the way down to the first base coach at Ogden.
The new ownership brings obvious promise, a track record of building (and playing for) winning or profitable organizations, but it’s hard to be completely upbeat until we know the Dodgers are moving together in the same direction with the same philosophy and with the right motivation, because that is how perennial winners are built.
That is the best way to ultimately deal with more than 25 years of frustration.